Directed by Antoine d’Agata
Prostitution, especially in documentary film, is usally treated as a socio-political problem, brought about by misogyny, crime and deprivation. In this context, it’s inherently evil, a one-sided struggle between men and women, between those who have power and those who do not. Renowned photographer Antoine d’Agata has spent his life working with people who have been marginalized by society, left to depend on prostitution and drugs for survival. His latest film Atlas moves beyond the traditional narratives and explores the ways in which these men and women affirm their existence, even as they’re consumed by an astonishingly brutal reality.
D’Agata acts as both director and cinematographer, constructing his film from aestheticised depictions of bodies, sex, drug abuse and masturbation. The images are detailed, often close-up, designed to expose the contortions of the body during sex, the distortions caused by disfigurement and addiction. It’s a synthesis between beauty and ugliness, intensified by the chiaroscuro cinematography that bathes the film’s subjects in shadow and light. The imagery is extreme, relentless; it comprises pain, destitution and violence, entangled with flashes of feeling.
Over the scenes, we hear women’s voices in different languages, speaking in complex, fragmented soliloquies. The narration wavers between the abstract and direct, but it’s always deliberate – like poetry – derived from contemplation rather than the gut. The words never correlate directly with the images and this creates a sense of distance, numbing the scenes from pleasure and pain. Each woman has similar fixations, concerning bodies, death, feeling and loss. They talk about sexual desire, which remains present, bodily violence and deconstruction, a common urge to tear through flesh and skin. However, the idea they always return to is negation, the need to separate themselves from their bodies, create an absence they can sustain.
Sex and drugs are ways in which they can transcend the body. However, the effects are temporary, gone in the blink of an eye. Like ice, heroin and numerous other substances used in the film, prostitution is an addiction, for both men and women. When not engaged in sex, they’re hunched, broken and distraught, trapped in a reality that steers them towards oblivion. Even though all the voices belong to prostitutes, their words acknowledge the power that they hold over these men. As purveyors of lust and transgression, they’re predators as well as prey. One woman reveals how the men willingly put themselves at risk of infection – for them, sex is a sacrifice and it’s only in sacrifice they can find pleasure.
While some women express only anger and hatred towards their clients, collectively, their reactions are far more complex and forgiving. One voice describes ‘the pursuit of pleasure’ as ‘a sadness’, while another says, ‘you are not a man; you are me’. By sympathizing and identifying themselves with those who abuse them, they appear almost saintly, martyrs for the world’s sins. The voices accumulate and reconcile. ‘I am like an open wound upon the universe’. The narration is never free from the brutal reality but it goes above and beyond it, reaching for a kind of transcendence. Another woman says, ‘I had no more wants. I needed nothing. I was free’. Then the pathos, ‘just a slab of cold meat incapable of moving’.
Through editing and juxtaposition, these experiences are explicitly rendered universal, and the film is broad enough in scope to justify it. Atlas features women from innumerable cities, spanning every continent. From Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Mumbai to Perth, Paris and San Francisco, the images are identical, the reactions the same. Every scene is filmed in a barren white room and the few establishing shots are of hazy cityscapes or metaphorical images, dead birds and dogfights. The only way to locate each sequence is through race and language but these concepts are rendered virtually meaningless. Prostitution isn’t a social problem with specific cultural or national causes; it’s a universal crisis, made possible by an ingrained weakness or general malaise.
D’Agata is influenced not just by what he sees before him but a history of radical French intellectual thought, especially Bataille and Céline. His camera is powerless, unable to influence what is happening, but he never turns away. The film is notable for its uncompromising honesty, moral neutrality and disconcerting beauty, but what makes it essential is those extraordinary voices that would otherwise have gone unheard. Their language is defiant, tragic and provocative, lyrical enough to have been written by a professional but all the more powerful for being true. Atlas is an undeniably troubling documentary, both emotionally and morally, but one that deserves to be seen.